The Wrong Debate?
The controversy over Iran's ostensibly civilian nuclear fuel program aptly demonstrates the linkage between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. While I don't pretend to any particular qualifications for commenting on weapons programs, it doesn't appear that the editors of the New York Times have any, either, based on the confused muddle they published on the subject last week. It won't surprise my regular readers to see me disagreeing with a New York Times editorial, which in this case is probably half right. Unfortunately, the half they are wrong about is downright dangerous.
In particular, their assessment of the adverse implications of designing a new generation of US nuclear warheads seems based largely on wild assertions and wishful thinking. Who can argue that the US isn't at least a bit cynical and hypocritical to push strict non-proliferation at the same time we engage in research on new warheads? But it's foolish to think that Iran and North Korea are seeking nuclear weapons because the US contemplates replacing some of our aging bomb stockpile. These countries are motivated by nationalism, religious or quasi-religious fervor, and a quest for regional advantage, and they would be on this path even if we were disarming much faster than we have been since the end of the Cold War.
The Times chooses to ignore that the warheads deployed on US missiles and submarines today were built before the fall of the Berlin Wall, as their own reporters highlighted in this recent article. This is important, because the designers of these weapons would have reasonably expected them to be superseded in a decade or so--it was an arms race, after all--by newer versions. Durability would have taken a back seat to yield, size and weight, and other operational characteristics. Gradually replacing these aging warheads with new ones explicitly designed to last for many decades would enhance international stability, rather than undermining it, by reducing uncertainty about the integrity of US nuclear weapons .
In focusing their attention on speculation about new warheads, the Times distracts us from the genuine need for a public debate on the proper role of nuclear weapons in the overall US defense posture. Although Russia or China might pose a small strategic threat today, each still possesses a significant nuclear arsenal, as do several of our closest allies. Absent a new cold war, our nuclear arsenal still constitutes an important deterrent against future contingencies. The value of such a deterrent is directly tied to the perception that it would be effective if used. Even if the Congress determines that we should reduce our nuclear weapons inventory by a further 90%, the reliability of the remainder must be as unquestioned fifty years from now as it is today.